Egypt optimistic it will be welcomed back into Arab fold after summit

Buoyed by recent talks with Gulf leaders, Egypt expects a sizable number of Arab states to restore full diplomatic relations in the weeks following the Arab summit conference, which opens in Amman Sunday. But Egyptian officials acknowledge they expect Syria - a stern critic of Egypt's peace with Israel - to block any move at the conference itself to ask Egypt to rejoin the Arab League.

Restoration of full diplomatic ties by a number of Arab states after the summit would boost President Hosni Mubarak's government and, as officials say, mark a ``milestone for Egypt and the Arab world.'' Ever since taking office in 1981, Mr. Mubarak has tried to bring Egypt back to the Arab fold, responding to the deep-rooted and widely felt belief that Egypt must be an integral part of it.

Restoring ties could also pave the way for a new defensive alliance of Gulf states with the powerful military and morale-boosting backing of Egypt, the only Arab state seen able to provide a counterbalance to Iran.

Egyptian officials mention Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco as the Arab states they expect to restore formal ties after the summit.

In 1979, reacting to Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, most of the Arab states broke diplomatic ties with Egypt. The only exceptions were Sudan, Oman, and Somalia. Jordan resumed ties in 1984 as the prelude to a new drive for Mideast peace. But most Arab states now have economic relations with Egypt and their ministers frequently visit.

But worry over the Iran-Iraq war has eroded their reticence. In recent weeks, the war has spilled over, threatening the oil-rich, but militarily weak Gulf states. While fearful of confronting their powerful Iranian neighbor, the Gulf states are reportedly increasingly skeptical of Syria's ability to restrain the Iranians, through its close ties to Tehran, and of the possibility of a UN-sponsored cease-fire.

Egypt has made it clear that new military commitments to the Gulf will only be possible after full relations are restored. ``We can contribute to air defenses and communications systems,'' Mr. Bashir says, ``but [the Gulf states] have to encourage Egypt to take the plunge.''

Officials here stress that despite some press reports, Egypt will not, for the forseeable future, send combat troops to the Gulf. ``We would like to see Iran persuaded to take a settlement course,'' Bashir says. Part of an eventual bargain, and the subject of current discussions with Gulf states, is economic aid for Egypt. Egypt is struggling under the weight of a $44 billion foreign debt and is reportedly seeking Gulf investment in its industries and development projects.

All-in-all, the mood here is highly expectant, even euphoric. As a Western diplomat sums it up: ``Post-Amman, if there's establishment of new relations, it'll be a whole new ball game.''

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